This is a concept album in the form of a book. This is the search for the American sound. This is looking for meaning in dive-bar jukeboxes, in Hong Kong music venues listening to Cantopop bands reinterpret Motown classics, and in a university ballroom filled with white suburban college kids shouting along to every word with Kendrick Lamar. This is trying to name what we can’t always see.
In Andre Perry’s debut collection, “Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now,” the essays don’t have time to wait for you. They start mid-moment, making you go along with wherever Perry urgently needs to take you, whether it’s a bedbug-filled apartment, driving down the interstate in frozen rain, or, as the collection opens, in the darkness of an imagined screenplay, with the line, “The screen is black. The sounds of bodies rustling in leaves can be heard. They are the sounds of love.”
Perry’s essays can’t be contained solely in print, but insist upon spilling over the page. We’re given screenplays as memoir with Perry’s childhood in the D.C. suburbs and an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” in the same piece. We’re given a multiple-choice question which tracks the career trajectories of Lil Jon and Will Smith. We’re given quotes from an interview between the first actors to star in an interracial sex scene. We’re given letters to a lover that highlight the writer’s isolation across the Midwestern landscape. Perry uses these forms to show just what an essay can do.
While another notable essay collection released this year, Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror,” turns outward, briefly touching on the personal, Perry aligns you to his world view, only to expose his universal truths. Both authors touch on the complicated history of the University of Virginia, Tolentino with a breakdown of the university’s policies in regard to sexual assault cases, and Perry with a visit to Charlottesville during which he notes the blatant segregation between white students and students of color. Perry’s lived experience and ability to make you look through a wider view makes these pieces successful.
Occasionally, there are disjointed moments, each skillfully used to demonstrate our narrator’s attempts at piecing meaning together. Through arguments with racists in dive bars and going home with the wrong lovers, Perry is aptly self-aware to admit his wrongs, making you learn from the missteps. He recounts an abandoned relationship stating, “I wonder if I misread my own desires, if I was the type of person who fell into relationships irresponsible just because I needed someone or something to hold onto.” While you feel bad for all involved, you’ll respect Perry’s ability to build meaning from the past.
Perry asks, “How do you challenge a ghost when you can’t even touch it?” He won’t give you the answer, but he makes you want to keep searching.
Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now
By Andre Perry
Two Dollar Radio, 184 pages
Joshua Bohnsack is the assistant managing editor for TriQuarterly and founding editor for Long Day Press. He is the author of the story collection “Shift Drink” and his work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, SAND, and others. He lives in Chicago where he works as a bookseller.